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“Digital tools such as online surveys, social networks, blogs, and wikis make it easier to involve and consult a broad range of stakeholders simultaneously.”

"Managing change is among the most challenging tasks leaders face. It involves communicating effectively with a diverse audience, addressing resistance and work with conflicts, and regulating others and own emotions. Until recently, the tools people used to manage change tended toward the analogue but the landscape of change interventions is moving beyond whiteboards and workshops. Online platforms, customised learning and messaging, rapid response analytics, and generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) are among the digital tools that managers can now use to make sure their transformations succeed,” says Dr Rouven Kanitz, Assistant Professor of Organisational Change at RSM. 

Digital technology promises to introduce new dimensions of involvement, personalisation, and adaptability to change management. However, these advances are not without their risks. Overall, much of the risk will depend not only on the technology but also on the manager behind it. Those who adopt digital tools without proper awareness are at risk of oversimplifying complex change processes in organisations. Once you understand the risks of using digital tools, you can mitigate them, and your change management process should be smoother and more effective than before. 

But one thing won’t change: human relationships and conversation will still be at the core of navigating organisational change. 

Rather than a task we outsource entirely to intelligent agents, change management will be an orchestrated and dynamic interplay between stakeholders, augmented by digital technology.

Change management specialists are divided into two camps when it comes to the value of these technologies. In my conversations with change managers, I find some people are overly sceptical and not open to experimentation, whereas others are overly optimistic and unaware of the technologies’ risks. My feeling is that both sides have good reasons for their views.

Dr. (Rouven) Kanitz
Assistant Professor of Organizational Change
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
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Rouven Kanitz
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For instance, these tools enable employees to share their knowledge or voice their opinions, bypassing the hierarchical boundaries that often hinder bottom-up communication in larger change initiatives. Through automated text analysis, managers can extract a larger portion of employee feedback at speed and incorporate their insights in the next iteration of the new system or process being introduced – a good example is IBM’s 72-hour ‘ValuesJam’ experiment in 2003, described here in the Harvard Business Review

Digital technology can also increase the quality of involvement. Involvement activities can range from concentrated, one-directional input (such as anonymous polls with Mentimeter or SurveyMonkey) to open, dialogue-driven interactions (e.g., world cafés – meetings that use a flexible format for hosting large group dialogues – or open space workshops in which participants create and manage the agenda themselves). Some organisations experiment with digital tools that guide and inspire in-person conversations in teams about change. 

These tools guide the way between individual work with data input, collaborative idea generation, and reflection of results – for example, the Culturizer platform. They guide teams through an iterative process of individual input, reflection and group discussion and decision-making, and digitally enhance the human interaction and dialogue while working on change. For change managers, these tools make it possible to roll out structured interventions in teams (e.g., strategy dialogues) at scale in organisations while collecting valuable data on the progress of the change. 

The benefits to such digital tools are obvious but they come with risk. One important factor is that managers can lose control over the content. Unfounded rumours may spread, and change the dynamics on the social network so that it becomes something different from the original intention. Another risk is that if employees feel that the insights they share are being ignored or not sufficiently valued by management, they may become disenchanted and it may become more challenging to motivate them for future changes.

Personalising change communication and training

Change communication used to be a top-down, one-size-fits-all proposition. Now, however, data analytics such as cluster analysis can reveal different ‘personas’ such as sceptics versus early adopters, and help managers address them in ways that fit their needs best. For example, some organisations experiment with smartphone apps that personalise the change experience and target different employees with varied communication and training materials to increase their readiness for change, like this example reported by McKinsey & Company.

Of course, such personalisation can also be risky. For instance, the impact of personalised nudges in change is not yet well understood and can have unintended consequences, so such interventions need to be carefully prepared and tested. 

Data protection remains a challenge too. We can use clustering techniques to build ‘personas’ of target groups (e.g., discontent opponents, calm compliers, those that are ambivalent) and then tailor interventions to those groups. But the best data is often personal data, so we need to take care to comply with data protection regulations. 

Personalised treatment could also lead to distrust within groups if individuals realise their training differs from that which their colleagues are getting in fundamental ways, or if the lessons themselves lead to different perceptions of the change or the system.

Dashboard

Data-driven analytics involves the use of applications that offer short surveys – sometimes called ‘readiness pulse checks’ – to those affected. These data that are combined with additional employee and business performance data, processed automatically, and presented in dashboards in real time. Monitoring these dashboards allows managers to adjust changes based on evidence with precision and flexibility.

Unlike traditional monitoring methods that report slowly or with errors due to manual analysis, newer solutions can instantly display results from validated short surveys of representative samples in dashboards. These dashboards visualise outcomes for key drivers of change success (e.g., information quality and commitment) across various groups (e.g., departments or hierarchical levels). This means that it’s easy for managers to quickly see which teams are lagging behind, or have not yet recruited the right team members, or need to look further ahead in their plans. One common ‘quick win’ is that results can be automatically shared directly – using customised views – with those responsible and those affected via dashboards.

Obviously, automated monitoring is not without risks. From the employees' perspective, every survey is not just a neutral measurement of the status quo but an intervention that can have unexpected consequences. For example, the low usage costs of digital survey software might lead managers to collect data in shorter cycles. If they try to validate every decision, people might feel micromanaged and become resistant. Moreover, survey fatigue among employees is real. The feeling of being controlled at the push of a button could provoke a negative attitude, ultimately jeopardising a change. 

For their part, managers need to have strong emotional and social skills. They need to be able to handle people’s negative feedback generated through these digital channels, and make sure that those emotions are dealt with outside of the dashboard and in person. Emotions like anger and frustration, in particular during transition phases, need appropriate responses. Moreover, data does not ‘talk’. It's crucial for managers to create good queries that collect suitable data, interpret it correctly in context, and derive valid conclusions from it. Any good change team will need people who really understand analytics and have a strong grasp of how to generate valuable evidence.  

“Generative AI chatbots can help design change roll-out plans or interventions, generate customised communication and training materials at scale, and facilitate monitoring of change initiatives.”

A virtual coach for change managers?

Another kind of digital innovation showing both great promise and risk is GenAI. Change management specialists were as excited as everyone else when GenAI hit the mainstream at the end of 2022. We could conceive that all change managers would now have access to their own virtual coach. GenAI chatbots can help design change roll-out plans or interventions, generate customised communication and training materials at scale, and facilitate monitoring of change initiatives. However, even though the long-term outlook seems to be positive, in the short-term, GenAI also comes with risks, including the potential to propagate inaccurate or generic content, and the risk of breaching confidential data.  

Digital technology offers exciting possibilities for personalised and adaptable change management, but the key to success is in the manager's hands. As the digital era unfolds, change managers must find the sweet spot between scepticism and blind optimism to harness the power of tech effectively.

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